[Ryan, Alan (1986), The Marx problem book, The Times Literary Supplement, April 25, no. 4334:437-437]

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The Marx problem book

[start of page 437]

Alan Ryan

Making Sense of Marx

556pp. Cambridge University Press. £35 (paperback, £10.95).
0 521 22896 4

The title of Jon Elster's book may induce a queasy feeling in the pious. The suggestion that we need to "make sense" of Marx smacks of lése-majesté; did Marx not make perfectly adequate sense of himself? Are we to suppose that Marx spent his life struggling towards a revelation finally vouchsafed to Professor Elster? Not exactly. Elster approaches Marx with a nicely balanced mixture of gratitude and scepticism. "It is", he writes,
not possible today, morally or intellectually, to be a Marxist in the traditional sense. This would be someone who accepted all or most of the views which Marx held to be true and important - scientific socialism, the labour theory of value or the theory of the falling rate of profit, together with other and more defensible views. But, speaking now for myself only, I believe it is still possible to be a Marxist in a rather different sense of the term. I find that most of the views I hold to be true and important I can trace back to Marx. This includes methodology, substantive theories and, above all, values. The critique of exploitation and alienation remains central.

Some readers may wonder whether this is the recipe for a wholly successful book. If the weight is to fall on making sense of Marx, ought not Elster to suspend his own disbelief in Marx's central claims, in favour of sympathetic reconstruction; if, on the other hand, the weight is to fall on making sense of the subject- matter of Marx's theory, such as social class, exploitation, the economic basis of the state, what is the point of approaching the issues by way of Marx's mistakes? Can it be worth devoting 550 pages of densely reasoned text to the proposition that Marx got it right when he anticipated Logic and Society, Ulysses and the Sirens and Sour Grapes and otherwise got it wrong? Elster's exploration of individual and collective rationality and irrationality in those books was full of interest. What is not clear is what he thinks he has added when he endorses those of Marx's claims consistent with his own earlier arguments and criticizes those of Marx's claims which are inconsistent with them. Elster's modus operandi smacks a little of grave robbery; we rummage about in the coffin and pocket whatever takes our fancy - legitimate enough if we think of social science as accumulating a stock of true propositions which we can list and endorse, while we list and reject those we see to be false, but not appealing if we suppose that the history of ideas demands a more holistic or a more inward approach.

Those doubts aside, Making Sense of Marx is splendid; it is endlessly ingenious, inventive and imaginative; it is built on apparently inexhaustible reserves of textual scholarship; it is written in sober, lucid and careful prose; and it tackles issues whose intrinsic interest is undeniable - from the problem of holistic explanations in social science to the social organization of utopia. If Elster's piecemeal approach makes for slow reading, it also makes for orderly thought, and it gives the book something of the character of an encyclopaedia of Marx-problems, to which one will gratefully return for years to come. If Marx's unreconstructed defenders will think Elster too harsh, and his unreconstructed critics will think him too lenient, that is at least a tribute to his even-handedness.

Elster begins with an onslaught on Marx's methodological preconceptions. Contrary to those who accept that Marx made many mistakes but who none the less stand up for his method, Elster holds that what is most distinctive in Marx's methodology is most distinctively wrong. He was a holistic thinker who resorted to functional explanation; that is, he explained the behaviour of capitalists and their employees in terms of the "needs" or "demands" of capital or of the capitalist mode of production. When British governments passed legislation to protect the welfare of factory workers and in the process made the workers less likely to resort to the violent overthrow of capitalism, Marx explained this in terms of the system protecting itself against threat. Such explanations are intrinsically vicious. The only acceptable explanations in social science are those based on the beliefs and goals of individuals, together with an account of the unanticipated consequences of their behaviour, and whatever explanations we can find of their having the beliefs and goals they do.

Certainly social systems exhibit behaviour of the kind Marx concentrated on - capitalists all rush to take advantage of the productivity of a new machine, but the effect of their actions is to drive prices down and so to deprive themselves collectively of the extra profits they had individually hoped to make. This, though, is an impeccably individualist explanation; Marx is to be praised for making this sort of phenomenon central to his account of capitalism and for the accuracy and ingenuity of his detailed causal accounts of its happening. He is not to be followed when he refers windily to the system bringing about events and fails to supply any mechanism by which the effects are achieved.

If Marx's virtues are to shine through his addiction to bad methodological habits, what is needed is an examination of his view of human nature - so that we have some overall idea of what beliefs and goals commonly motivate human individuals - and then a piecemeal examination of his views on value, exploitation, history, modes of production, the nature of politics, revolution and the ultimate communist society. A good sample of the strengths of Elster's approach is his discussion of that old chestnut, what we are going to do in utopia. Elster observes that there is the germ of an inconsistency in Marx's valuing of creativity rather than consumption: "in a society entirely made up of active, creative individuals, nobody would be bothered to read, watch or otherwise enjoy what others are producing, except to learn from them". He takes this to show that Marx overdoes the emphasis on altruism, and claims that some egoism is required in order to allow altruism to get to work. Similarly, unless some people just want to consume what others provide, at least some of the time, creation is pointless.

This is eminently forgivable as the expression of a sort of over-exuberant criticism of the capitalist narrowing of people's opportunities, abilities and tastes. But it raises questions about the plausibility of other assumptions made by Marx. For instance, can it be true that there will be no "one-sided" creation under communism? Echoing Hannah Arendt, who used to complain that Marx turned everything serious into a hobby when he insisted that we should all become "many-sided" under socialism, Elster asks whether it is reasonable to expect Milton to break off from the composition of Paradise Lost in order to go hunting, or fishing, to keep cattle or engage in "critical criticism", as the German Ideology envisages. If he were to do so, he would not be treating creativity as "a damned serious business" in the way the Grundrisse insists we must: but if he were obsessively concerned with his masterpiece, he would hardly be displaying the talent for all-round, unabsorbed creation anticipated in the German Ideology. In general, says Elster, echoing Isaiah Berlin and Charles Taylor among others, there is something desperately implausible about Marx's belief that there are simply no costs whatever to life under communism.

Elster's discussion of Marx's views on exploitation is a good example of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. In line with his disposition to make much of Marx's values and less of the ideas which Marx himself was proud of, Elster treats Marx's discussion of exploitation as a discussion of the injustice of exploitative systems. The thought, which comes from the Harvard economist John Roemer, is that there is an injustice when some people cannot obtain goods which embody as much labour as they themselves perform. The test is not behavioural - someone who could receive as much as he contributes, but chooses not to, is not exploited; and it is not a simple consequence of the fact that some people employ others - with a little ingenuity you can produce examples in which there is some profit-making but everyone still ends up getting the labour equivalent of what they contribute.

It is not at all clear to me that this way of treating exploitation catches the point of Marx's own discussion. It may well be a better treatment, and it may lead on to more fruitful inquiries into distributive in justice in market economies, of course. But if we are supposed to be making sense of Marx, it is not clear that this is the way to do it. Elster is more concerned with following out the ideas of Roemer and G. A. Cohen than in following out the oddities of his ostensible target, and therefore treats arguments about exploitation as branches of an argument about Marx's conception of justice. But there is much to be said for the view that Marx deliberately refuses to adopt any conception of justice as his own because he is more interested in the question of what comes after justice - to which the answer appears to be, a new kind of communal freedom.

Marx regarded his discussion of exploitation as part of the solution of the riddle of the origins of profit under capitalism. Once Elster has thrown out Marx's exploitation theory of profit on the grounds of explanatory inadequacy, all he has left are questions about justice. But arguments about justice are notoriously slippery, and, handled in the kind of individualistic framework that is proposed here, they tend to collapse into the swapping of opinions. Thus, Elster quotes Cohen arguing that the vast differences in consumption between capitalists and workers humiliate the workers - but the audience of Dynasty and Dallas would roar with laughter at the thought they were wallowing in self-abasement. Elster thinks that because skilled work is intrinsically more enjoyable than unskilled work, the skilled do not really need extra pay to induce them to perform - which ignores such obvious difficulties as the fact that I cannot share the psychic satisfactions of my work with my dependants whereas I can share my take-home pay. Doubtless in a very different world things would be very different, but Elster resolutely refuses to throw up his hands and say that in utopia all problems will have vanished, so his room for manoeuvre is more restricted than Marx's was.

It is, however, a merit of the book that it induces this sort of dissent. One may feel by the end that for Elster to call himself any sort of Marxist is a piece of sentimentality entirely at odds with the intellectual rigour of what precedes his declaration. One may feel that a committed Marxist could read the whole book with his faith unshaken, because he would think that Elster's methodological individualism just missed the point of Marx's methodology. This might well be the reaction of anyone convinced by Richard Miller's recent Analyzing Marx (1984), which suggests that the high proportion of tautological and unfalsifiable claims in Marx's own theories is par for the course in all scientific work and that Marx was much more genuinely Darwinian in his approach to social science than most of his critics have thought. Well before the end, one may feel that Professor Elster is better employed writing the deft, brisk pieces of analysis which his earlier books show off to such advantage. But Making Sense of Marx is a monument to patience, open-mindedness, intellectual scrupulousness and straightforward intelligence which can stand comparison with anything in the vast literature on Marx and modern social theory.

[end of page 437]

[Ryan, Alan (1986), The Marx problem book, The Times Literary Supplement, April 25, no. 4334:437-437]

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